British Columbia

Former foster kids reclaim Indigenous culture through fashion

Indigenous youth who have aged out of B.C.'s foster care system are heading to Sydney, Australia this summer to showcase clothing designed to highlight their culture.

A group of B.C. youth is creating clothing for an upcoming runway show in Australia

Linda Lavallee, left, of the Montreal Lake Cree Nation is a co-owner of Cree-Nisga'a Clothing and is working with Indigenous youth who were formerly in B.C. foster care such as Riley Ballentyne, right, to design clothes that reconnect them with their roots. (Angela Sterritt)

A group of Indigenous youth from British Columbia is taking their high-fashion designs down under.

The ten youth, who were all formerly in the foster care system, are creating clothing that reflects their roots and will travel to Australia this summer for a runway presentation at the University of Sydney.

The project is spearheaded by the husband-and-wife design duo Linda Lavallee and Patrick Stewart of Cree-Nisga'a Clothing. With financial support from Lu'ma Native Housing's Youth mentorship program in Vancouver, they are helping youth, aged 20 to 26, reclaim their culture by designing clothes that showcase it.

'I never really got the chance until now'

Riley Ballentyne entered the foster care system when he was six years old after he asked a family friend to call child protection services and remove him and his little brother due to his parents drinking. Ballentyne stayed in care for 11 years and bounced between many homes. 

Now that Ballentyne has aged out of foster care, he is honouring his Cree and Anshinaabe ancestry by working with Lavallee and Stewart to craft an Anshinaabe dancing apron reminiscent of regalia he remembers seeing at a powwow.

"It really just struck me as beautiful and I kind of wanted to see how I could sort of make one," Ballentyne told CBC's Early Edition  reporter Angela Sterritt.

 "I never really got the chance until now," he said.

'I grew up being ashamed'

Krystal Cheena is also part of the couture-contingent that is getting ready for the runway.

She spoke to Sterritt about how residential school kept her grandparents from knowing their culture, and as a result, her own parents did not have the knowledge to share with her. 

Linda Lavallee, left, helps Krystal Cheena work on the designs she is creating for a fashion show this summer in Australia that will showcase the work of Indigenous youth like Cheena who have aged out of B.C.'s foster care system. (Angela Sterritt)

"I grew up being ashamed of being Indigenous," said Cheena, who hid her Gitxsan and Cree ancestry from her school classmates. Cheena is changing her narrative now by participating in this project.

Cheena hopes the fashion show will spread awareness and teach people about her culture "in a really fun way."

Clan couture

Carlos Santiago, from the Nisga'a nation, is also excited to show off the sweater emblazoned with an eagle that he is making to honour his mother's heritage.

Santiago's mother passed away when he was "really young" and that's when he entered foster care.

Carlos Santiago, left, and Patrick Stewart work on designs for the upcoming showcase in Australia. (Angela Sterritt)

"I really wanted to do this design because I know my mom was a part of the Eagle clan and so am I," said Santiago.

The designers will showcase their creations at an Indigenous conference in New South Wales during the first week of July. 

Until then, the group has some sewing to do.

The artists will display fashions inspired by their culture. 6:05

The Early Edition